why good ideas sometimes have to die

In my early days, I had this tendency to come up with an idea I thought was BRILLIANT.

And one day I had to create a full-page magazine ad.

After a fit of inspiration (and some kickass input from my design partner), I brought the ad concept to the Creative Review meeting.

This was where all the stakeholders and leaders of the Creative Department would see the first fully fleshed out concept… artwork, photos, typeset, everything.

A full-color mockup of what we hoped would go to print.

I remember sitting there, excitedly waiting for my boss to tell me just how fabulous an idea this was, how clever a writer I was.

Instead he read it, pondered, and turned to me to announce, “I don’t get it.”

So I explained the joke.

Clarified the PUNdemonium.

After that, he got it (he may have even chuckled a bit).

And promptly told me to have reworked copy on his desk by the end of the day.

I was mightily confused. “But you said you got it!”

And he shared with me one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career as a copywriter:

If you have to explain it, it’s not clear enough.

He said there was no way I could possibly follow the delivery truck as it dropped off its magazine bundles, and wait for someone to buy one so I could explain the concept.

He knew I wasn’t going to stand by the store magazine racks, handing out copies, and asking people if they got the joke.

He pointed out that if you have to explain it to one person, odds are they’re not the only one who didn’t understand.

And when you’ve got a whole room full of people saying they don’t get it, continuing to argue the point is pretty much pointless.

If you have to explain it, it’s not clear enough.

And let me be clear… when I say explain in this context, I mean face to face. Because in print or online, there’s no opportunity to explain.

If you give it to someone to read, someone who’s acting as your second set of eyes (which is a practice EVERYONE who writes should be doing), and you have to explain…

…it simply has to be rewritten to be more clear.

And SOMETIMES, the seed of an idea can be salvaged and reworked.

But more often than not, lack of clarity means going back to the drawing board.

Because clear trumps clever EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

You’ve got problems if:

  • they can’t even figure out what your product is
  • they can’t find your store/business name
  • they don’t understand what your offer is
  • your clever wordplay made them laugh (but not enough for them to remember WHO made them laugh)


Don’t get me wrong – clever ideas can pay off. Look at Dollar Shave Club and Squatty Potty.

But the catch is… I dare you to find one single portion of either of those ads that is UNCLEAR.

The reason they work is they are funny… AND it’s clear what they’re selling.

So next time you’re chuckling to yourself as you write a wickedly funny headline, you might want to get a gut check from a trusted colleague.

You won’t be able to explain it to your buyers once it’s gone live, so you better be sure it says what you meant it to say.

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